GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (a.k.a., GODZILLA VS HEDORAH) (1971)
“Oh, no, they say he’s got to go
Go go Godzilla
Oh, no, there goes Tokyo
Go go Godzilla…”
Godzilla is indestructible. It is as simple as that. And I don’t mean how he can survive atom bombs, missiles, wavy death beams, aliens and other monsters. I mean he’s been kicking ass for over half a century, has been depicted in novels, comic books, video games, shitty American movies, and even a couple of animated series, one of which produced the notorious ‘nephew’ Godzookey, who can only be described as a kaiju version of Scrappy Doo (and that should be description enough to make you wake up at night with the sweats).
In the movies, Godzilla had gone from Lovecraftian engine of destruction to defender of humanity and back again, representing anything from rage to atomic war to whatever. My earliest memory of the Big Guy dates back to a showing on NBC of GODZILLA VS MEGALON, which was released theatrically in 1976 (with the poster showing the titular monsters fighting on the Twin Towers, despite not being set there) and shown the next summer on NBC, with John Belushi hosting (dressed in a Godzilla suit!). I devoured everything I could get on him. Godzilla, that is, not Belushi. Belushi doesn’t return my texts any more.
Legendary Pictures is currently putting together another remake, scheduled for release on May 16, 2014. Connected with the production is one Yoshimitsu Banno, whom some die-hard obsessives might know as the director of one of the most controversial Godzilla movies of all time, 1971’s GODZILLA VS HEDORAH, aka GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER.
Now, for those not in the know, the first GODZILLA movie was released in 1954, where he was a sole, unique threat against humanity. But over the subsequent 15 years and 10 movies, a whole mythology was built up, with more monsters, myths and madness added, and gradually Godzilla began to be seen less as a mindless menace and more a grudging ally of humanity against other forces, whether extraterrestrial or atomic weapons.
Or in this case, pollution, certainly a big and relevant topic at this time, and especially for Japan, choking under its own waste.
GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER opens with shots of the country, and images of water, air and soil pollution that are certainly effective. It then opens with the funkiest right-on song you can imagine: “SAVE THE EARTH!” the woman cries out, with lyrics that Al Gore would get a boner over (“The sea has cobalt, it’s full of mercury/Too many fumes in our oxygen/All the smog now is choking you and me/Good Lord, where is it gonna end?”)
We then get that staple of kaiju, the Annoying Kid, Ken Yano (Hiroyuki Kawase), a Godzilla fan whose scientist father, worried about the rise in pollution and reports of a sea monster wrecking vessels, takes him to the shore to do some scuba diving – yeah, that’ll work out. Underwater, Dr Yano is attacked by a large tadpole-like creature with red eyes, the same creature leaping out of the water to attack young Ken, unfortunately leaving him alive (sorry, but the brat is shrill). Still, the sombre scene when he’s calling out desperately for his missing father is equally effective.
Dr Yano is alive, but terribly burned by some sort of acid. His subsequent research has determined that a sludge-like substance, possibly from space, has mutated into a creature which can grow with the more pollution it consumes. Further, it can metamorphose into a land-walking monster that emerges and, in one unintentionally hilarious moment, uses a smokestack as a giant bong…
However, there’s no way some giant cowpat is going to be left unchallenged – Godzilla emerges, but finds this menace unlike any he’s ever faced before. Hedorah (the Japanese word for sludge, slime or chemical ooze) has no skeleton to speak of, and a punch into his chest only leaves Godzilla’s hand smoking from its acidic insides. And throwing Hedorah around only sends bits of it flinging to kill innocent Japanese folk (but not kittens).
And Hedorah is not done yet. It returns, now able to metamorphose into a flying cowpat which spits out sulphuric gas, and in a horrific sequence we see it pass over hundreds of innocent folk, turning them into skeletons which young Ken gets to look at and run away in terror. Ken’s go-go dancing big sister Miki (Keiko Mari) and her boyfriend Yukio (Toshio Shiba) basically decide to give up to Hedorah and go out in style with a huge million-man rave on Mount Fuji, a rave that disappoints when: a) only thirty show up, and b) Hedorah gate crashes, responding to torches thrown at him by flinging deadly sludge – and killing Yukio! But before Hedorah can do to the same to Miki and Ken… Godzilla appears for the final battle!
Hedorah is bigger now, however, and tougher. But Godzilla isn’t alone in the fight: Dr Yano, inspired by some ramblings from Ken, has developed an electrofield designed to dry out Hedorah. But will it be enough to… Save the Earth?
Even by the, shall we say distinctive standards of the genre (an art form with its own rules like kabuki and 70s porn) , GOZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER is bizarre. It is at turns goofy and dark, with several strange impressionistic animated scenes portraying the smog monster at his evil work. There’s a bizarre scene in the go-go club where hipster Yukio, perhaps having dropped a tab of acid, starts seeing everyone around him with fish heads. There’s even bits with kid’s poems about how Godzilla will come along and burn away all the pollution! And this is alongside some grisly scenes of people being melted into skeletons (American International Pictures, which bought, dubbed and released the movie in April 1972 with the eponymous title, somehow managed a G rating!). There’s also a sequence where Godzilla flies, backwards, using his atomic ray as jet propulsion (Director Banno reportedly added the scene to provide a light moment in what is otherwise a pretty dark movie compared with those which came before it).
The action sequences are plentiful but slow at times, with long sequences where you sit making up what the monsters are thinking (Hedorah: “Me Want Smog!” Godzilla: “I’m gonna hate fuck you to death so hard your ghost is gonna give birth to my babies, beeyatch!”). On the other hand, Hedorah’s alien nature does make him appear as if it’s one creature Godzilla might not defeat. The monster suits are adequate, and Hedorah, with its asymmetrical red eyes, is certainly a creature you won’t forget once you see it (Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor who played Hedorah, was struck with appendicitis during the production. Doctors were forced to perform the appendectomy while he was still wearing the Hedorah suit, due to the length of time it took to take off. During the operation, Satsuma learned that painkillers have no effect on him. What a fucking time to find that out!)
GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER is Yoshimitsu Banno’s baby, the story inspired after visiting a polluted beach near Yokkaichi. His passion for his message was obviously genuine, and the movie is filled with touches that might be missed by a Western observer: throughout the film, various symbols of Japan are shown to be destroyed or obscured by industrial waste and pollution. Chrysanthemums, long a symbol of Japan, wilt and die under the strain of Hedorah’s sulphuric acid mist, and Mount Fuji, long seen as a symbol of the Japanese nation, is hidden behind a layer of smog and smokestacks (By the way, do you know what ‘Fuji’ means in Japanese? ‘Mountain’. So, ‘Mount Fuji’ means ‘Mount Mountain’. So Now You Know).
This was Banno’s first Toho film, and he was so pleased with Hedorah that he started writing another Godzilla film after wrapping his first entry in the long-running series. However, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who was hospitalized during the production, was extremely dissatisfied with the final product and went as far as to tell Banno that he had “ruined Godzilla!” So Tanaka immediately barred Banno from making another Godzilla film. In fact, Banno was never allowed to direct another Toho film again, reduced to assistant director for PROPHECIES OF NOSTRADAMUS (1974).
When all is said and done, is GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER a bad movie? No. It’s… special. It’s enjoyable, and distinctive, and I find myself watching it more than I do the other Godzilla films of the era.
Director: Yoshimitsu Banno
Plot: 2 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien
And since the Holiday season is right around the corner, this is near the top of Deggsy’s wish list. I’m just saying …